Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Sean Harris, Jack Farthing, Sally Hawkins, Stella Gonet, Jack Nielen, Freddie Spry
Producers: Maren Ade, Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Paul Webster
Music: Johnny Greengrass
Cinematographer: Claire Mathon
Editor: Sebastián Sepúlveda
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 111mins
What’s the story: During a fraught Christmas break at Sandringham House, Princess Diana (Stewart) attempts to stave off a psychological breakdown.
What’s the verdict: The 2013 Naomi Watts vehicle Diana was such a misfire, it seems folly for another film to tackle a figure who still inspires reverence and hysteria.
But Pablo Larraín is an ideal candidate for the job. His 2016 film Jackie examined Jackie Onassis (nee Kennedy) in the weeks following the JFK assassination. The result was unusual, compassionate, and brilliant. Working from a script by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, he adopts the same approach for this tale of the People’s Princess™. Spencer unfolds over three days during her last Christmas as a Windsor in the chilly halls of Sandringham house. The entire family has gathered, and amongst the privilege and comfort the only thing in short supply is festive cheer.
Jackie was framed as a waking nightmare, with its eponymous heroine’s situation both horrific and surreal. For Spencer, Larraín presents Diana’s life as a gothic horror story heavy on the Bronte and the du Maurier. The supernatural permeates the elegant halls and vast rooms of Sandringham, with the Royals seemingly privy to every word uttered. “Keep Noise to a Minimum – They Can Hear You” is a sign hung prominently in sympathetic chef Sean Harris’ kitchen, a more ominous reversion of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” ethos.
Diana speaks of dead Royals lingering as dust in the rooms, and finds herself plagued/encouraged by the ghost of Anne Boleyn, a Queen whose life was forfeit to Royal desires. Photographers are regarded as unclean spirits. A glimpsed Camilla Parker Bowles echoes the perfect, absent Mrs. de Winter of Rebecca. As does the boarded-up Spencer abode that neighbours Sandringham. The exhaustion ritualism of Royal life resembles spectres repeating tasks ad exorcism.
Larraín also invokes famous cinematic haunts in his visuals. Spencer’s Sandringham is decidedly by way of the Overlook Hotel. Ominous tracking shots glide through the halls, coolly observing the disintegration of the central character. In his black-tie formal attire and with intimidating politeness, Timothy Spall’s Major Gregory, there to ensure Christmas runs smoothly, echoes The Shining’s Delbert Grady. Even Diana’s one friend, her dresser Maggie (Hawkins), at times seems like a coping mechanism summoned by a desperate mind. Complementing this is Johnny Greengrass’ anxiety-ridden jazz score.
So, with the film’s meta-texture as thick and plush as the curtains that must be drawn before Diana dresses for fear of photographers, Kristen Stewart performance impresses. Imbuing genuine psychology into her character, she humanises a figure long marbleised as an icon. A disordered mind within a world of airless order, Stewart creates a believable Diana beyond just a convincing approximation of the trademark husky-whisper voice. Constantly late for meals she will regurgitate moments later, she is a bizarre anomaly within an enivronment so ordered and behaved.
But Spencer does not omit her quick wit or love for her boys. Although her scenes with Jack Nielen as William and Freddie Spry as Harry do play as loose improvisations that fail to capture the intended unguarded happiness. Better is the awe and affection the public had for Diana, with a scene of the princess asking for directions in a roadside café providing an early chuckle.
Whether the film convinces that Diana’s life of closed privilege and luxury was such a hardship will shift from viewer to viewer. Larraín and Knight also make space for Jack Farthing’s Charles and Stella Gonet’s cold-smiling Elizabeth II explaining the dichotomies of public and private Royal lives. Both director and writer also land how odd an institution is the Royal Family. In unheated palaces members cling to ceremony, tradition, and abstract notions of “duty” as if that permits them their lives of supreme luxury. Not-so subtle analogy has Diana lost amongst anonymous country lanes, unable to find her way home, while pheasants are spoken of as beautiful birds bred to be sacrificed for the consumption of others.
Inevitably, there is a touch of the Family to this family drama. Strict rules and euphemistic expressions of displeasure against anyone stepping out of line abound, locating Spencer not a million miles away from shadowy rooms and bars populated by The Godfather or those Goodfellas. “What can they do, kill me?” Diana remarks early on, after being urged to arrive at Sandringham before the Queen. An apparent trolling against internet conspiracy nuts becomes amusingly more sinister after a later “the decision’s been made” shot of the Royals.
By that latter scene, Spencer has tumbled from the sublime into the clumsy earnestness of 2013’s Diana. The impression is having witnessed a beautifully performed ballet, only for the dancer to topple on her final pirouette.